Pickle interviews activist Bella Bathory on the fight to decriminalize sex work, the nature of kink and her love for Jayne Mansfield.
I meet a lot of fabulous people in my line of work. I am, after all, in the business of being fabulous. I thought it would be keen to interview some of the queer individuals that I come across in this city over lunch and highlight them. My first subject is proud sex worker, self-described Barbie Daddy, Scholar, Sadist, Activist, Power Dyke Bella Bathory.
We sat down at one of my favorite spots in Los Angeles, HOME Restaurant on Hillhurst. I would like to thank HOME for being so generous and hospitable to us; the support of the Queer community from local businesses is invaluable, and very precious to me. Sitting down on the patio, a cool December breeze rustling the leaves, we talked about Bella’s activism and her life here in Tinsel Town.
“In Los Angeles—if you’re a street-based sex worker and you have condoms on your person they can arrest you and charge you for prostitution for every condom on you. So to avoid arrest if you’re working the street, you can’t have condoms on you. Risk your bodily safety to make money or risk arrest. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.”
The first thing that struck me about Bella Bathory was her eyebrows. Perfectly manicured, sharp, distinct. She wears black glasses and has blonde, almost white hair that snuck out of the grey beanie she wore to lunch. It was the beginning of a spa day; one of the perks of her line of work is the flexible schedule. Bella looks like a student, and indeed she’s been working on “the world’s longest bachelor’s of biological sciences degree” for five years. She’s not rushed to finish-school and the weather brought her from Chicago to Los Angeles, along with the proximity to higher paying work and more opportunities. She moved to the Windy City from Las Vegas at seventeen, and remained for nine years.
“I miss a lot of things about Chicago. The people and the community are very tight-knit.” She still visits annually to attend IML (International Mister Leather). “It’s always an adventure. Things are slowly changing, but back in the heyday of IML women were not really welcomed. There’s this party called Vespertine that this old leather daddy butch lady throws which is an all femme-identifying play party. Being able to be with a bunch of women in that space is really special.”
Her first job in Chicago was working as a hostess in a heavy metal bar called Kuma’s Corner. They serve “these ridiculous fucking hamburgers,” one which has an entire Chicago-style hot dog on it. All served on a pretzel bun. I asked her what she took away from the job: “Never work in the service industry.”
Indeed, I reflected on this moments later as I asked our server to list the aioli options. Bella ordered the Chilaquiles and I the classic HOME Wrap, a delicious veggie patty with avocado, arugula, cabbage, and mediterranean salad, although I typically substitute basil aioli for the chipotle.
We both congratulated ourselves for making healthier choices in the end (Bella had flirted with the chicken fried steak and I begrudgingly opted for a side salad in lieu of french fries). We laughed about gay nightlife and the fragility of Angelinos in the face of cold weather (myself included-having spent four years in New York I one time awoke to a gentle snowfall and collapsed weeping onto the floor). I asked who her favorite villain was. She said Jayne Mansfield. “She’s not so much a villain, but she was the anti-Marilyn (Monroe). She was so openly sexual and had a pink house.”
Bella has an altar in her home that she prays to, with different pieces of spiritual significance: an image of David Bowie, the Goddess Kali (of Time, Creation, Destruction and Power), the first dollar she made doing sex work. Among these items she has a piece of glass from the car accident that took Mansfield’s life back in 1967. “How did you get that?!” I blurted, my mouth full of veggie patty. She told me about a creepy museum across from Hollywood Forever, The Dearly Departed Museum that has memorabilia from Hollywood Deaths. “I love her. She was here for the fame and here to get weird.”
Bella engages in a great deal of activism, particularly with an organization called SWOP LA, (Sex Workers Outreach Project-The Los Angeles Branch). She shared with me the project she’s currently working on with bigger organizations such as Kaiser Permanente, who have reached out to SWOP for assistance. “I’m working on a three part cultural competency for mental health, medical health and law enforcement. So that when they’re interacting with a sex worker they can know how to be of service to them without making them feel alienated or stigmatized.” Stigma is something, she argued, “we overcome every day, over and over again. I’m over my stigmas, but the rest of the world isn’t.”
I asked Bella what some long term goals are for her and SWOP-LA. Decriminalization is at the top of the list. Bella feels it isn’t too far off. According to her, seven out of the eight wards in San Francisco are no longer arresting sex workers. LA is behind in that regard. “For instance, something that’s definitely not legal that they’re still doing (in Los Angeles) is if you’re a street-based sex worker and you have condoms on your person they can arrest you and charge you for prostitution for every condom on you. So to avoid arrest if you’re working the street, you can’t have condoms on you. Risk your bodily safety to make money or risk arrest. That’s not a choice anyone should have to make.”
Somewhat naively, I entreated Bella to define “Kink” for me. I had grown weary of boys on Grindr asking me if I’m “kinky” and being unsure how to reply. Was I halted at the gates of paradise, allowing my vanilla fears to creep down my spine and suffocate honest pleasure with their lily tendrils? Have I allowed them to keep ransom the corners of my own sexual mind? I figured, while I had a professional across from me, I may as well seek some guidance. She regarded me briefly over her blood orange mimosa, those immaculate brows furrowed before sharply responding “I don’t define it. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that everyone’s into some weird shit. Because of that, nothing is normal and nothing is irregular.”
Upon my insisting that we define it somehow, we settled on “kink” being synonymous with open-mindedness, with a willingness and ability to articulate one’s sexual desires. I felt a sense of relief, and my own curiosity freed up a bit. Maybe this would be the beginning of some new adventures! Bella remarked of sex work that it was magical to be a part of realizing other people’s sexual fantasies. There is a profound intimacy to being the curator of that experience, she says.
Above all, though, her favorite part of the work is meeting her fellow sex workers. “Sex workers are incredible, to be able to navigate people’s bodies, communicate our boundaries and connect with one another.”
Lunch hour was nearly done, and Bella had a spa day to get started. With a good deal of work ahead, the fight to de-criminalize sex work, the fight to be treated with dignity and the right to pursue sex work safely when the government bombards the community daily with new devastating blows, I asked Bella if she is optimistic about the future.
“It depends on the day. I am. It seems like a lot of this is very similar to the plague in the 80s. We lost so many people, and there’s a lot of loss of rights and access, but we’re coming together more now than we ever have.”